Cross Winds

Not even hurricanes have dampened the Williams family’s will to farm.

By Tharran E. Gaines | Photos By Colin Hackley

By early October last year, the harvest on the Williamses’ farm looked promising. They’d harvested much of their 600 acres of peanuts, yielding around 4,800 pounds per acre, just a little under the long-term average. The cotton crop—some 1,500 acres of it on the farm just outside of Lenox, Georgia—was next. 

Joey Williams, who manages the farm with his wife, Melissa, as well as his parents, Don and Pam, had already sprayed defoliant on 500 acres of cotton, and yields looked good. Joey was hopeful the crop could make up for the disappointment of 2017—a lower-than-average harvest thanks to Hurricane Irma, which rolled through in September of that year.

Unfortunately, Joey had only harvested about 200 acres of his cotton this fall, when the wind and rain began to intensify all over again. The weather was coming fast, too, this time courtesy of Hurricane Michael. Having intensified from a tropical storm into a monster Category 4 storm in just three days, Michael surprised just about everyone and devastated portions of the Florida Gulf Coast when it made landfall on Oct. 10. By the next day, it was on the Williamses’ doorstep.

“The eye of the hurricane passed about 60 to 80 miles north of us,” recalls Joey, noting that the farm is spread over a 26-mile distance. “Before the hurricane hit, we were looking at one of the best cotton crops in several years. 

“When it was all over, nearly 70% of the crop on our northern farm and about 50% of our total cotton crop was gone. The wind literally stripped it out of the bolls and carried it off.”

Bologna Or Steak

The Williams family, left to right: daughter Annah, Joey, Melissa and son Landon.

For the Williams family, some of the hazards may be different than what producers face elsewhere. Yet, the overall challenge is much the same—making ends meet when low yields or crop prices can’t fully offset rising input costs. 

“Some years we eat bologna, and some years we eat steak,” Melissa jokes. “We just have to hope it all balances out, while cutting corners where we can.”

That’s a big reason the Williamses continue to adapt and diversify. As an example, in 2003, the family quit growing tobacco, a crop had been part of their mix ever since Joey’s great-grandfather settled in Georgia as a sharecropper. 

“The market has changed so much, and it’s so labor-intensive during harvest,” he says, noting that tobacco buyers kept making more demands without paying anymore money. “So, when we quit growing tobacco, we just picked up more acres for cotton and peanuts, and added more cattle.”

Use Everything

Livestock fits particularly well with the Williamses’ cotton and peanut operation, and the family has grown its cow/calf herd from around 30 animals to approximately 100. All the peanut vines, for example, are baled right behind the combine while the stems and leaves are still a little green. The round bales are then fed year-round as a supplement to summer pasture and rye.

“Cows are just like people,” Joey says with a grin. “They get tired of eating the same thing all the time, so the peanut hay gives them a little variety.”

Even cotton fields yield winter forage, he explains. “We’re usually running a stalk chopper right behind the cotton picker,” Joey says. “After that, we run our Sunflower® Vertical Tillage [tool] to level up the field and plant rye. Those fields are then used for grazing until we strip-till in the spring.”

Own The Markets

Whether it’s calves, cotton or peanuts, the Williamses also strive to earn top dollar on their commodities through specialized markets and forward contracts. All their peanuts, for instance, are sold through Premium Peanut, a farmer-owned cooperative. From there, the medium and large peanuts go to Mars Inc. for use in peanut M&Ms and Snickers bars, while the smaller ones are pressed into oil.

In the meantime, the Williamses also have bought into Southern Drawl, a new cotton cooperative that launched this past November to market American-made sheets and bedding made from combed cotton, a softer version of regular cotton. Even calves from the cow herd are marketed differently. Instead of calving in the spring, the Williamses’ herd drops calves in September and October. That means their calves hit the market in June and July, when fewer calves are being sold. It also means a lower feed bill, since the herd is on rye pasture during the winter. 

Buy In Bulk

In order to save money, the Williamses also like to buy everything they need in bulk when prices are at their lowest. That includes fuel, fertilizer, herbicides and plastic wrap for the cotton rolls. 

“We actually added tanks so we could hold a year’s worth of fuel and liquid nitrogen used for sidedressing cotton,” Joey explains. “As for the plastic wrap, we switched to a cotton picker that builds plastic-wrapped round modules.” 

“The plastic is expensive, costing us nearly $30,000 a year, even when we buy it in bulk,” Melissa adds. “But the reduced waste and savings in time allow us to do other things at a busy time of year, which kind of offsets the expense.”

Do It Yourself

“Finally, we try to do everything we can ourselves,” Melissa adds. “The only thing we don’t do is truck the peanuts and cotton off the farm to the buyer. Otherwise, we have our own sprayer, fertilizer spreader, baler, harvesters and soil-sampling equipment, so we can get things done in a timely manner.”

Joey says they grid-sample every field each year to evaluate the need for nutrients in what is mostly a sandy, pebble-strewn, loamy soil called tiff. Such sampling helps them determine nutrient needs on the front end, so they don’t apply, and therefore spend, any more than necessary on fertilizer.

Melissa adds that the “do-it-yourself” philosophy even applies to their 12-year-old son, Landon, and 15-year-old daughter, Annah. For the past several years, she and the kids, along with her younger sister, Kristin Varnadoe, and her nephew, Bud Varnadoe—the Williams family’s one full-time employee—have manually pulled herbicide-resistant pigweeds from fields to keep them from multiplying. Fortunately, they’re getting ahead of the nasty weed, and the workload has lessened each year.

Of course, the Williamses know from experience that every year is different and that, sometimes, the unexpected happens—like it did with the back-to-back hurricanes in 2017 and 2018.

“In 2017, the wind from Irma was worse than the heavy rain,” Melissa recalls. “It laid the cotton down and dehydrated the leaves so bad that we lost about 500 pounds per acre.”

“We just try to be as efficient as we can,” Joey concludes. “Like everyone, we’re always looking for ways to cut costs and improve yields. But you can’t cut it much tighter than we have on input costs without affecting yield. We’re still looking at things we can do differently on chemical costs. In the meantime, we try to put our investments in products and equipment that will provide the best return for our dollar.”